“Dead Man Down,” the new revenge movie that marks the domestic debut of Niels Arden Oplev, the Danish director behind the original Swedish version of “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” doesn’t have an extended title sequence. There are a couple of names of production companies and then the title and that’s it. This is sort of strange, especially considering its impressive cast, which includes Colin Farrell, Noomi Rapace, Isabelle Huppert and Terrence Howard. But everything about “Dead Man Down” is designed to catch you off guard, and most of the time it totally works, effortlessly mixing B-movie aesthetics with deeply contemplative European artiness. The result is a movie that is genuinely, totally unexpected.
The film’s unpredictability is present from the get-go. This is a movie co-produced by IM Global, WWE corporation and “Fast and the Furious” shepherd Neal Moritz, but its first scene is a hipster criminal named Darcy (Dominic Cooper) giving a slow moving, emotionally compelling monologue about his family. It might be marketed as some slam-bam action movie but it’s so, so much more. After this monologue, Cooper and his buddy Victor (Farrell), are picked up by Hoyt (Howard). They go to visit a rival drug dealer’s lab. They threaten this drug dealer’s various goons, and ask where he is (in bed with a prostitute, of course). Hoyt confronts this man, clutching in his hand a section of small shards from a photo that has tauntingly been sent to him anonymously. A well-choreographed shootout ensues, complete with screechy electronic music backdrop. There isn’t any kind of pause in the action to unload helpful (if somewhat leathery) exposition; the movie begins in medias res, without any contextual flashbacks or explanation. It’s run and gun the entire way, a refreshingly smart way to start a movie, especially in the era of “origin stories” and “prequels,” where everything is explained to death.
After the shootout in the drug dealer’s home, the thugs return to Hoyt’s house, where one of their buddies has been killed and put on ice. Who could have done this? Why, it’s the same cad who has been sending Hoyt the bits of photo (which are adding to a mosaic that he still can’t quite make out). Someone is unnerving this mob boss, and other mob bosses he does business with (like Armand Assante) are beginning to lose confidence. Hoyt tasks Victor, his number one guy, to track down whoever it is that’s fucking with him, and take him out.
Running parallel to this are scenes where Victor, in his crummy apartment in an undisclosed area of a city we assume is supposed to be New York, makes flirty eye contact with a young woman across the way, in a similarly crummy apartment. This is Beatrice (Rapace), a woman who is horribly scarred and now lives as a shut-in with her mother (Huppert). They finally make a connection and go out on a date, where she tells him about the drunk driver who smashed into her car, giving her the horrendous scar (he got a couple of weeks of jail time and is now back out there). At the end of the date she takes him by the drunk driver’s house and drops a bombshell on Victor – she witnessed him kill a man inside his apartment and videotaped it on her phone. In exchange for her silence, he will kill the drunk driver responsible for her scars. Uneasily, he agrees.
This begins the main thrust of the movie, which is a pair of revenge plots that frequently intermingle, adding depth and intensity to the other. You see, Victor is the one who killed his partner, and is the one who has been taunting Hoyt. (Hoyt is responsible for something very bad that happened to Victor’s family.) He has an incredibly elaborate revenge plot that he has begun, one with a distinct time table and a thousand moving parts, and he’s worried that this side mission, to off some alcoholic white guy, will muddy the waters. Hoyt is an interesting angel of vengeance because he’s as conflicted as he is driven, seeking the guidance of a mentor (F. Murray Abraham) when things get too morally thorny or logistically unwieldy.
But the real meat of the story is the relationship between Beatrice and Victor – in a movie full of surprises, this is something that is unexpectedly moving and complex. They are both deeply damaged characters who see the other person as a way of repairing what’s broken, but they go about things in the most haphazard, dangerous way possible. There’s a realization that happens between them that no matter what they want, and how many people they kill, there will still be a part of themselves that’s bruised. It’s accepting those bruises that will truly bring them peace.
Since this is also a WWE/Moritz movie, there are occasionally some bullet-ridden battles and an appropriately fiery climax, where all the cogs in Victor’s revenge machine start to come undone. And it’s a testament to Oplev’s elegant direction that these elements don’t seem out of place in what would otherwise be a deeply contemplative, elegantly assembled psychological thriller. (The script was written by JH Wyman, a television mainstay who recently oversaw the latter seasons of J.J. Abrams‘ toxically underrated “Fringe.”) Oplev composes shots with grace and an understanding of where everything is geographically and how scenes relate to each other in the multi-threaded plot. Like everything else in “Dead Man Down,” his direction is beautiful and brutal at the same time. Whoever thought that this movie would be as entertaining as it is existential is either lying or psychic. [B+]